WNBA star sentenced: why was Brittney Griner in Russia in the first place?
The 31-year-old was sentenced to nine years after being found in possession of cannabis oil while travelling through a Moscow airport back in February.
On Thursday basketball star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of one million roubles ($16,300) for bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia.
The 31-year-old was first arrested in February while travelling through a Moscow airport when the banned substances were found in her luggage. She was arrested shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and some commentators have suggested that her detainment is an attempt by Moscow to exert pressure on the United States.
What was Brittney Griner doing in Moscow?
In the US Brittney Griner is an established name for Phoenix Mercury; a two-time Olympic gold medallist; and an eight-time WNBA All-Star. However the typical salary in the top flight of American female basketball is less than $130,000 per year, and even the top stars rarely earn more than $500,000.
In the NBA players can earn tens of millions of dollars a year, but women often play for overseas teams to supplement their US-based salary. Since 2014 Griner has starred for Yekaterinburg-based team UMMC Ekaterinburg, who compete in the Russian Premier League.
Initially Griner played alongside Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi in Russia, although Taurasi left the team in late 2017. Taurasi is thought to have earned around $1.5 million per season playing for Ekaterinburg, at least three times what she was paid in her home league.
Griner’s Russian team had links to Putin
The court case has played out with the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequences of President Putin’s offensive have complicated efforts to free Griner. Numerous WNBA players who compete in the Russian leagues have left the country due to the invasion, a move mirrored by professional soccer players and the like.
Across almost all sectors there has been an effort to decouple American assets from the Russian economy in the hope of increasing pressure on Putin. However such is the control that Putin exerts over Moscow that efforts to levy sanctions and turn the nation into a pariah have not dampened Russia’s attempt to take Ukraine.
In fact, Putin is thought to have ties to the very team that Griner played for in Russia. UMMC Ekaterinburg owner, the Uzbekistan-born Iskander Makhmudov, was named as one of the oligarchs with ties to Putin in the Putin Accountability Act.